It's Not Going Away

John ArmstrongRace and Racism

Obbi879_revwri_20080428122811Rev. Jeremiah Wright is back in the news this weekend. I would have to guess the Obama campaign wishes he wasn’t but the minister will not keep quiet. Personally I am glad he is not keeping quiet. These events demonstrate something the Christian Right and Left both need to see and hear—truly prophetic ministry cannot keep quiet in the face of polticial debate. Wright, you could argue, is probably harming Barack Obama’s campaign. I feel sure that he not only understands this but he regrets it deep inside. But he can’t be kept silent now that he has become a household name and has been afforded a national platform. He is showing both courage and biblically prophetic ministry by speaking opening and candidly.

I have watched several of Wright’s addresses and watched some of the critique from the right. I am, frankly, more convinced than ever that this controversy has demonstrated the truly deep racial divide in America more than anything that we have witnessed in some years. It has opened up a discussion that could help all of us to listen and learn a great deal. I pray that it will and remain committed to the process that seeks that end. My primary commitment is to seek out black Christian leaders and then ask them to help me understand more fully how they see this discussion and understand the debate. As I have mentioned before I am also watching a lot of documentaries and full-length movie material to enter into the racial issues that plague us as a people. I have believed, for nearly a lifetime, that no issue more powerfully defines us, as to both our good and dark sides, than race. And, of course, I am reading books and articles like never before.

In Wright’s comments to the National Press Club he was asked about Obama’s denouncing him in his public remarks. He rightly said, "Obama did not denounce me." Wright says he distanced himself from the sound bytes and the way these were being heard and understood. He said Obama was doing what he had to do to be a viable political candidate, which is of course correct, and that this did not bother him personally. He added that he was not at Obama’s side when he announced his candidacy for the presidency last year because he is his pastor not his political advisor. He noted that he privately prayed with his whole family on that day and then stepped aside and Senator Dick Durbin introduced the candidate. What a refreshing and sound approach. I wish more Christian ministers would pray and then step aside. Let our voices be heard prophetically not politically.

We have lost the power of the pulpit in this land to speak to the real spiritual and justice issues the Church ought to speak to because we have made peace with the left, or the right, and become the extensions of partisan political agendas. When someone dares to question this arrangement he is despised on one side or the other. Please understand that the Democratic Party and the Republican Party both have a history of using religious values and groups for their political ends. These parties exist to win elections and gain power. Christians are foolish to not recognize this simple fact.

And all of this has nothing to do with the church iliving faith very hoenst about it. I believed long ago that the loss of our prophetic voice directly hindered the missional mandate of Christ, the very thing that I am publicly committed to as a minister of Jesus Christ. But many of my conservative white friends do not agree. They understand the cultural mandate, which I strongly affirm as a biblical truth, includes the church engaging in partisan political debate of the sort that favors one party or the other.

Father Michael Phleger, a priest who serves a virtually all-black Roman Catholic Church near Wright’s former church in Chicago, put it well when he said, "We just want America to ignore America’s reality. C’mon, let’s stop ignoring it. One hundred years of racism. It’s not going to go away." The only caveat I have to that statement is about the 100 years of racism. It is more like 350 years. It is so much a part of the very fabric of our national identity that precious few white Christians, churches and ministers are willing to face it. Why? The honest answer, as best I can tell, is simple. They would lose their jobs if they did. It is so much easier to see all of this in terms that are clear and defensive rather than have to admit that we inherited a system that is broken and desperately needs serious "Christian" commitments to fix it.